In a nutshell…
Locally sourced meat is commonly thought to be better, both ethically and environmentally, than other types of meat and, sometimes, even better than plant-based alternatives! This is entirely false, however.
- All meat is local to somewhere – eating locally sourced meat only means that the animal cruelty and unnecessary slaughter is on your doorstep rather than further away! This, of course, makes very little difference to the animals themselves.
- Local food is often thought to be environmentally superior because of fewer food miles. In fact, food miles make up only a tiny portion of the total emissions from most foods. Even when including food miles in the data, plant-based products come out consistently better of meat, dairy, fish and eggs with only a fraction of the total impact of animal products.
- We should, of course, be careful about importing anything by plane, as air travel is disproportionately bad for the environment – but only 0.1 per cent of all food is transported by plane!
The full story
As campaigners, we often hear meat-eaters say: “Yes, yes, I agree – but I only eat locally sourced meat, anyway!”.
There is a common misconception that if the meat we eat is from animals that were raised and killed near to where their body parts or secretions end up being sold, then any other concerns that a vegan may raise are somehow allayed.
Some of this comes down to ‘locally sourced’ being seen as more ethical and ‘humane’, while others are referring to the food miles involved in transporting animal products. Both are simply not true.
Animal cruelty on your doorstep
Firstly, all meat has to come from somewhere. Obvious as this may sound, that means that all meat is local somewhere. If you are concerned by meat that comes from farms on the other side of the country, what should the people that are local to those farms think of them? Given the prevalence of factory farming in particular – over 90 per cent of all animal products being from factory farmed individuals in the UK – there is an overwhelming likelihood that any animal products bought from local farms are from factory farms.
In addition, these animals all go to the same places to be slaughtered, no matter how or where they were kept in life. Animals are made to form, in effect, a queue to be slaughtered – often by slitting their throat, shooting a captive bolt through their skull, gassing and/or electrocuting. There is no such thing as ‘humane’ slaughter.
While buying locally sourced meat may feel better for the consumer, it is only moving this unnecessary cruelty closer to home and thereby abdicating any sort of responsibility that comes with taking the life of a baby animal for taste pleasure.
Logically, if it is wrong to euthanise a young dog simply because his or her owners are bored of taking them for walks, then it is also wrong to unnecessarily kill any other animal that does not want to die. The fact that farmed animals are not so much ‘euthanised’ as they are slaughtered in violent and gruesome ways only adds to the unnecessary cruelty of the situation.
What about food miles?
Of course, not everybody is primarily motivated by animal cruelty as a reason to go vegan. Many are increasingly concerned about the climate crisis in which we find ourselves. For these people, there is a very common misunderstanding that importing plant-based foods from around the world has a worse environmental impact than eating locally sourced animal products.
This is, in fact, entirely false – it is the other way around!
The root of the misconception lies ironically in the fact that the emissions of plant-based products are so low that food miles look to be far more significant than they actually are. Producing one kilogram of beef emits around 60 kilograms of CO2-equivalents, while peas emit only one kilogram, for example. However, only around 0.5 per cent of the total emissions from beef are from food miles, while it is closer to 10 per cent for peas.
This is true across the board. Poore and Nemecek (2018) performed the largest meta-analysis to date on the environmental impacts of food production, breaking down the impact into categories like land use change, on-farm emissions, animal feed, transport and so on. While this approach shows that around 50 per cent of the emissions from bananas are from transport – a number which looks big on paper – the total emissions of bananas are still almost a hundred times lower per unit weight than the total emissions from even locally sourced beef.
In fact, this prompted the environmentalist George Monbiot to calculate that you could “fly bananas six times around the world before they have the same impact as locally sourced beef.”
Of course, the distance travelled and the sort of transport used are also major factors when considering the environmental impact of food. In general, flying is significantly worse than transport by road or water, for example, so environmentally conscious individuals will often try to avoid paying for items transported by air. Still, when it comes to food, only a tiny minority of all food is flown, with most being taken on ships or by road at a fraction of the environmental cost.
As environmental researcher Hannah Ritchie says, if you want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food choices, you ought to “focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local.” In a similar vein, if you want to reduce the ethical impact of your food, you ought to focus on eating plant-based rather than consuming sentient animals – whether you used to be neighbours or not!